What I would like to do, if you all will be kind enough to permit it, is further explain what I mean when I say that all societies are theocratic, by necessity, of necessity. I would also like to do it in a way that is compelling to absolutely everyone on the planet. But I know you can’t have everything.
As I just now indicated I might, let us begin with a scenario.
First, let us say that a godless and pagan politician says outrageous thing x, ghastly thing y, and appalling thing z. There is a sharp intake of breath from the east coast to the west coast.
Second, let us further say that as part of the general outrage a Christian leader steps forward, and using whatever platform is available to him, rebukes and denounces said three comments. That was really bad, he says.
And third—and here is where you have to stretch your imagination a little bit, but I am sure you can do it—suppose the politician in question stops dead in his tracks, turns to the Christian leader who offered the really compelling rebuke, and says something like, “You know, you really may have a point there. I’ll have to seriously consider that. I will take it up with my advisors tomorrow. Could you please go over why the standard that is clearly implicit in your rebuke applies to me, and why you think I should take your admonition to heart?”
At this point it would become clearly evident that many Christian leaders are engaged with the culture the same way a dog is engaged with chasing a fire truck. He has no idea what to do if he catches it.At this point it would become clearly evident that many Christian leaders are engaged with the culture the same way a dog is engaged with chasing a fire truck. He has no idea what to do if he catches it.
Right. I know, I know. Politicians behaving badly don’t ever respond that way, but they should. And if they did, the inability of most Christian leaders to answer such an obvious set of questions reveals that they are not really speaking truth to power, but rather are just throwing popcorn at the movies. They see some flagitious behavior on the screen (which cannot be changed), and so they hoot and throw their popcorn, not to change anything, but rather to impress the junior high girls in their part of the theater with their ninja-like film critic skills. But this is quite a distinct goal. Impressing the girls and fixing the movie are two different things entirely.
So, do you have my scenario fixed in your mind? Politician says or does a bad thing. Christian leader waxes indignant about said bad thing. Politician asks the Christian leader to identify the arche that overarches them both, not to mention the rest of us all, which would require him to pay serious heed to the admonition. If we continue with our scenario, most Christian leaders would then say ummm.
To simplify still further: bad thing said or done, bad thing rebuked, and the basic question why should I listen to you? is then reasonably posed. Still with me?
Before going any further, it should be noted that why should I listen to you? really is a preeminently reasonable question. The one rebuking has spoken with authority, or with at least as much authority as Twitter will allow without shadow banning, and it is in the highest degree reasonable for the recipient of the rebuke to ask whose authority it is.
Now when Christian leaders have offered their moral indignation up for the edification of Trump, or Herod, or Caligula, or Theodosius, or Margaret Thatcher, or Mussolini, or LBJ, there are three possible responses when this flummoxing question is asked of us in return. Remember, the basic question is by what standard?
The basic possible responses are these three:
- So sorry for raising the issue. I was really out of line, and will try to do better in the future.
- I was offended by what you said, and there are about ___________ people who feel the same way I do.
- The God who rules Heaven and earth has condemned what you have said or done as a sin, a violation of His standards for human behavior, which would include His standards for kings. I am His representative, and I am calling upon you to repent.
In the first option, there is no standard, or the standard is dropped like a hot rock. Sometimes there are theological workarounds to make the whole “dropping” part less obvious, but whether we are talking anabaptist, dispensational, or R2K workarounds, the hot rock is now cooling off on the ground. No further questions, please.
In the second option, there is a standard and it is applied, but it is a horizontal standard representing some constituency. By horizontal standard, I mean that it is not grounded by any transcendental or ultimate reality. There is a big evangelical voting block out there, and so you don’t want to get on their wrong side, buster. But this reduces the Church to a mere constituency, and her prophets to mere lobbyists. It means, in effect, that the politicians need listen to us only so long as we outnumber the lesbians. After that point, as we have taught them by doing it this way, they should always go with the more vocal pressure group.
The third group is not made up of the soft men who dwell in king’s palaces. The third group speaks in the name of God, and in His authority. Their commission to speak is held, first, on the basis of what God has declared in the starry heavens, with its embedded echo in the conscience of man, second, what He embodied in the incarnation of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and third, what He has revealed to us through the apostles and prophets in His Scriptures. The ratios of these emphases may vary, but the thing that all three have in common is that they are outside the legislative reach of Congress. Authority is applied to this particular society, and it is applied from above, from outside that society. It is a word from Heaven. And it is spoken by someone within the society whose ultimate allegiance and ground for speaking is anchored in the skies, outside that society. Indeed, outside the world.
So, again in summary, the three options are: 1. sorry, we will speak this subject no more, 2. we will make some sort of horizontal appeal, based on some consensus of thought down here, or 3. we will speak in the name of the living God.
Now who does not see that the third option—requiring rulers to conform their rule to the edicts of the living God—is theocratic? But what about #1 and #2?
Yeah. What About #1 and #2?
Every society has what I have been calling the “god of the system,” the point past which they allow no further appeals. In secular democracies, the formal god of the system is Demos, the people. In practice, democracies are often oligarchies—where a few reign in the name of the many. But all societies, including ours, have an established standard of righteousness, which they justify in specific and very religious ways. That theological justification is found (by humanists) in humanity.
By religious, I do not mean that they all have candles and altars and temples. Secular democracies can be low church—but they are fiercely moralistic for all that. They even have moralistic frenzies and religious spasms—think climate change, or #MeToo, or eating healthy, or affordable health care for everyone. Dissent from them on things such as these and you will soon find yourself treated like the vendor of ham sandwiches at a conventicle of Hasidic rabbis. Their commitment to their way of life is an all-in religious commitment, and I am not saying this as a metaphor. It functions religiously, and it functions in the place of religion. Societies, like individuals, have ultimate commitments, and because they are a society, they are shared ultimate commitments.
As a believing Christian in such a secular society, I am as out of place (in this regard) as I would be in Saudi Arabia.
Now those who opt for #1, dropping the issue, are those who are acquiescing in the current theocratic arrangement. They may say that they are not urging anyone to do anything on account of their god but this, of necessity, means that we are stuck with the incumbent.
Those who opt for #2 are trying to work from within the system. They are willing to let Demos be the god of the system, but they want to exercise their influence to get him to clean up his act a little bit. They are like a sweet Christian girl dating some bad boy, and they would make their peace with it if he said there was probably some kind of god, and that he would try not to cuss so much. They are not interested in total transformation, but would settle for some slight improvements. So then she took him home for Thanksgiving and he said shithole in front of the grandparents.
In both cases, the idolatrous theocratic arrangement remains.
Remember, this is an inescapable concept. It is, as Rushdoony used to say, not whether but which. It is not whether a society will be theocratic, but rather which θεός the theocratic society will have. It is not whether we will impose a morality, but rather which morality we will impose. It is not whether we will have blasphemy laws, but rather which blasphemy laws we will have.
If you retort that we are a free society and don’t have blasphemy laws, then I submit that you could make a cat laugh. We don’t call them blasphemy laws, describing it rather as hate speech, but we police it pretty rigorously. I could go downtown in any major city in North America and get arrested within half an hour solely on the basis of what I was saying about the god of the system.
“By What Standard?” He Kept Asking Repeatedly
You cannot call people to meet a particular standard because you are upset that they have failed to do so, and then when asked what standard you are asking them to meet, reply indignantly that you are not applying any standard at all. Who said anything about a standard?
This issue applies everywhere and always, but since Trump is the one who set off the most recent round of incoherence, let’s use him for the example.
Trump said something that was by all accounts eighteen inches long.
An uproar commenced.
I ask what standard is being used when we chastise him for saying something eighteen inches long.
The uproar redirects and heads in my direction. “We aren’t using any standards at all, neither metric nor imperial! How dare you suggest otherwise?”
So I inquire why everyone is so upset.
“Because what he said is eighteen inches long!”